David Malouf and the Happy Life

David Malouf, The Happy Life: The search for contentment in the modern world (Quarterly Essay 41)

If I ever need to be reminded of the depths of my ignorance, I need only read an essay by David Malouf, any essay. In this one, he draws for his argument on Plato, Heidegger, Jefferson, Montaigne, George Herbert, Solzhenitsyn and Condorcet, gives illustrations from Chekhov, Rembrandt and Rubens, and refers in passing to Dostoievski, Horace, Marvell, Shelley – there are cameo appearances by at least twenty writers and artists we know by a single name, that is to say, key figures in European cultural history. He’s not Wikipeding. Nor is he showing off. You know that these writers are part of his mind’s living furniture, that he needs to refer to them if he is to lay out his own thinking. At the same time he realises many of his readers won’t share his erudition, so he becomes a tactful and gracious teacher, elegantly spelling out Heidegger’s interpretation of the Platonic story of Epimetheus and Prometheus, for example, or explaining Condorcet’s pivotal role in the history of ideas. It’s quite a change of pace from the electoral politics of even-numbered Quarterly Essays.

It’s a change of pace in another way too. At least the way I read it, it’s not so much a thesis, a marshalling of evidence and argument to convince the reader of something, but an essay, as in the French essai, an attempt at its subject, a reflective chat with past thinkers and makers, a teasing away at a question and a stab at partial answers. Here’s the question – I should preface it by saying that by us here, he means ‘the new privileged, those of us who live in advanced industrial societies’. (‘The truth is,’ he writes, ‘ that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century.’)

How is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives – large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death – that happiness still eludes so many of us?

He explores the question down many interesting paths – because of course the question of happiness has been addressed by great thinkers for millennia – with excursions into art history He reflects on elements of the modern world from the effect of seeing our planet photographed from space to the way we think of our bodies has changed since his childhood in the 1940s (this is as close as he gets to the personal note that is a key element of the classic personal essay). Insofar as he arrives at an answer, it seems to be that ‘we’ need to slow down, shrink our horizons, accept limits. I won’t give any more detail: it’s beautifully argued, by means of a compelling image from a great piece of fiction, and I don’t want to spoil the reading for you. I do want to argue, though, that while this ‘answer’ may appear formally as the essay’s conclusion, it doesn’t resolve the argument. So much of the rest of the essay is arguing for something much more zestful, for the value of restlessness that the reader is inclined to think, ‘Well, if that’s the way to happiness, I’ll stick with my discontent, thanks.’ It’s a subtle, elegant, shape-changer of an essay, not easy to pin down, but very easy to enjoy.

There is one major perspective that makes an appearance only by virtue of an explicit exclusion. While it’s clearly legitimate to ask a question about happiness for the ‘new privileged’, leaving the happiness of the rest of humanity for a different essay, the rest of humanity must surely figure in the answer. No privileged elite is an island, entire of itself, and so on. My crude thought, which amounts to a central article of faith, is that none of us can be content while we don’t challenge and actively oppose the monstrous disparities covered by the notion that we are not all living in the same century. Didn’t we (and I think I mean David’s we) feel a surge of joy when the crowds in Tahrir Square had their moment of exultant hope recently, as if a weight had been lifted from our shoulders? And don’t we sleep less soundly knowing, even while we push it to the backs of our minds, that Aboriginal people in this country are still living in a different century from us, as the result, not of some geological time slip, but of ‘our’ forebears’ deliberate policies, and that ‘we’ all benefit personally from those policies? Someone said, ‘No one can be free until all of us are free.’ I think a corollary of that is that none of us can be happy as long as we are indifferent or ineffectual in the face of the misery of others. I can’t say I’m an unqualified fan of Alice Walker, but the banner that unfurls at the end of Possessing the Secret of Joy comes to mind: the secret of joy is resistance.

That is to say, this is a terrific Quarterly Essay, one that makes ya think.

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